10 features of democracy in Sweden

Sweden has a democratic system of power built on openness and transparency where everyone has the same rights. This guide will reveal how democracy works in Sweden.

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The Swedish parliament building in Stockholm.

Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/Sveriges riksdag

10 features of democracy in Sweden

Sweden has a democratic system of power built on openness and transparency where everyone has the same rights. This guide will reveal how democracy works in Sweden.

#1: Parliamentary elections

Sweden is a parliamentary democracy. This means there are no presidential elections, only parliamentary elections. Based on which party – or coalition of parties – that receives the majority of votes, the parliament appoints a prime minister who then forms the government.

The last time one party got absolute majority was in 1968, when the Social Democrats received 50.1 per cent of the votes.

Read more about the Swedish system of government.

#2: The four-per cent rule

To be assigned any seats in the Swedish parliament, a party must receive at least four per cent of the votes or at least 12 per cent of the votes in any of the country’s 29 constituencies. That’s why there are few small parties in parliament.

The parliament has 349 seats. After an election, the Election Authority distributes the seats proportionally, depending on the number of votes that each party has received. To make sure that the whole country is represented, the distribution of seats also takes into account the election results in each constituency. The largest constituency is the County of Stockholm, the smallest the County of Gotland.

On election day polling stations are usually open between 8:00 and 20:00.

Photo: CC BY Härnösands kommun/Newsdesk

#3: High voter turnout

In the parliamentary elections of 2018, the preliminary voter turnout in Sweden was 87.1 per cent of eligible voters. The turnout has not been below 80 per cent since the 1950s.

Many factors influence the high turnout: trust in democratic institutions, respect for the electoral system, and the fact that parliamentary elections are combined with elections to local and regional governments. The authorities of a municipality or region are chosen by local voters, and not appointed from the capital of Stockholm.

#4: Foreign citizens can vote locally

To vote in parliamentary elections in Sweden, you have to be a Swedish citizen aged 18 or more, who is or have been registered in Sweden. But in local and regional elections, it is not only Swedish citizens who have the right to vote, but also:

  • citizens of other EU countries, Iceland or Norway who are registered in the municipality or county; and
  • citizens of other countries who have been registered in Sweden for a minimum of three years and are registered in the municipality or county.

The reasoning is that politicians elected to local and regional authorities should take care of the interests of everyone who lives in the area, regardless of citizenship – and regardless of whether they are ambassadors or labour migrants.

Many schools in Sweden let students under the age of 18 practice voting in a school election.

Photo: Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

#5: Young people vote too

In Sweden voter turnout is equally high among younger people. Schools often prepare students for voting before they turn 18 by inviting representatives of different political parties, so that students can learn about how the country’s democratic system works and what the different parties stand for. That way, young people have the opportunity to compare and draw their own conclusions.

Students under the age of 18 can sometimes also participate in an initiative called Skolval, school election. They then vote using the same ballots as adults. These votes are not counted as a part of the real elections, but interestingly, the results don’t differ much from the ‘adult’ votes. In 2014 the Social Democrats got 31 per cent among adults compared with 25 per cent among schoolchildren, and the Pirate Party got less than 1 per cent among ‘adults’ and about 2 per cent among schoolchildren. That year, 1,629 schools participated in the experiment, and almost 466,000 students voted.

Read more about Sweden’s largest political parties.

#6: Registering your own party

In Sweden it is very easy to found a party – it can, for example, be done by forming a non-profit association. The party name can be registered with the Election Authority, but that’s not necessary – people can vote for the party anyway by writing the party name on a clean ballot provided at the polling station. This vote will also be counted.

Because of this, there are oddities at every election. In the 2014 elections, a certain ‘Satanist initiative’ (Satanistiskt initiativ) got as many as 86 votes. The ‘Zlatan Party’ (yes, after the Swedish football player Zlatan Ibrahimović) got seven votes while the Donald Duck, Putin and Christ parties each got less than five votes. In 2014 all the parties not among the nine largest scored only one per cent of the total vote.

Sweden joined the European Union, EU, in 1995. Every five years EU citizens elect representatives to the European Parliament, the EU’s law-making body.

Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/Sveriges Riksdag

#7: Gender-equal society – gender-equal parliament

After the 2014 elections, there were 197 men and 152 women in the Swedish parliament. But the gender balance was more even after the 2010 election: 184 to 165. And of the 22 ministerial posts in the current government, women occupy 12, including in the ministries of the ‘first order’ such as foreign affairs and finance.

Incidentally, this reflects the gender balance among voters: an almost equal proportion of men and women went to the polls.

#8: Parliamentary diversity – a reflection of the country?

Diversity in the Swedish parliament is not only related to gender, but also age, background, et cetera. The youngest member of parliament (MP) at the time of the election turned 21 and the oldest 81. Nearly one-third of the MPs are 30 to 49 years old, and as many as one-fifth are under the age of 30.

Also, both income and education levels vary – about one-quarter have only secondary but not university education. While aiming to reflect the actual diversity in Sweden, parliament is still a lot less diverse than the country – for example, around 8 per cent of MPs were born abroad, but that figure is 18.5 per cent for Sweden as a whole.

#9: The principle of public access

The Swedish Constitution is made up of four fundamental laws – the Instrument of Government, the Act of Succession, the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression – that define how Sweden is governed.

The Freedom of the Press Act sets out the principle of public access to official documents. This principle allows people to study official documents from parliament, the government or any public agency whenever they wish. In other words, not only the media can scrutinise those in power.

Another principle in the Freedom of the Press Act is the freedom to communicate information. Everyone in Sweden is entitled to give information that they feel should be made public to the media. The publisher of the material may not reveal the source if the individual in question wishes to remain anonymous.

Read more about openness in Sweden.

#10: Media – the ‘third power’

Media in Sweden are sometimes referred to as the ‘third power’. The government is the first power and the parliament the second, and it is seen as the role of media to scrutinise the first two.

Many newspapers declare – in writing – which ideology it stands for. They can be socialist, liberal, independent, and so on, but an important note here is that it doesn’t affect the newspaper’s objectivity: objectivity is vital regardless of ideology. In other words, a socialist newspaper may well criticise the Social Democrats.

Then there is public service media, owned by an independent foundation and funded through a license fee paid by Swedish households. SVT (Sweden’s Television) operates four television channels, and Sveriges Radio (Sweden’s Radio) operates several radio channels, all without advertising. These public service companies are led by a special board consisting of 12 members who are nominated by parliamentary parties, and an independent leader. This setup aims to safeguard Swedish public service broadcasting against monopolistic control.

Last updated: 14 September 2018

Alexander Polivanov and Sweden.se